Before I get to the bitterness, let me just qualify something about the Tottenham vs Manchester City game – in the opening half an hour, Manuel Pelligrini’s men played the most impressive attacking football I have ever witnessed and, in particular, Sergio Aguero appeared able to carve through the Spurs defence at will. They did not just deserve their 1-0 lead at that point, it could have been five and should have been at least three: Aguero’s run into the box, reminiscent of his title-winning goal against Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the 2011/12 campaign, ended in a shot coming back off the inside of the post; plus Edin Dzeko had a handful of chances that he should have done better with. In the last 15 minutes of the first half however, Tottenham actually showed some fight – something they had completely failed to do in their drubbing at the Etihad earlier in the season – and even found the net from a set-play, but Michael Dawson was adjudged to have been offside (replays suggested at the moment Christian Eriksen took the free-kick, the Spurs captain may have been level, but there was also a slight touch from Emmanuel Adebayor at which point Dawson was clearly offside). Tackles were flying in and for a while, it looked as though City were actually rattled by this approach. At the break, I found myself thinking that even if I still believed we would lose the game, at least Tottenham were not going down without a fight.
Nevertheless, just a couple of minutes into the second period, the challenge facing Tim Sherwood’s side went from very difficult to impossible, as Danny Rose was sent off and a penalty awarded to Manchester City for a challenge on Dzeko in the area. This is where the bitterness comes in – not only was the tackle perfectly fair, with Rose clearly playing the ball and any contact with the striker came after the ball was played, but referee Andre Mariner did not initially award a penalty and only changed his mind and brandished the red card on advice from his assistant. Because of the angle that Rose came in from, the assistant’s view of the ball was blocked by the left-back and Mariner actually had a better view of the incident and his instincts not to award a spot-kick were correct. Now bad decisions happen and like I said before, there was very little chance that Tottenham would have taken anything from the game anyway, but being down a man against the best attacking side in the Premiership era is a recipe for a thrashing. What bothered me most though was the way the incident was dealt with by the commentators – who suggested it was a close decision that could have gone either way but ultimately did not impact the result – and in post-match analysis such as The Guardian Football Weekly podcast, where it warranted nothing more than a passing mention at the end of a discussion about the game. If such a poor decision had been made against other clubs (in particular, City, Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea), then not only would it have been the major talking point surrounding the fixture, there would also have been a question about whether or not it affected the outcome. Last season, Spurs were 1-0 down to City at home and turned the game around to win 3-1 with all of the goals coming in the final 20 minutes – it may not have happened again, but better officiating would at least have given us a better chance.
Even after that incident and the third City goal, which followed shortly afterwards, Tottenham still not let their heads go down (until the final 10 minutes) and kept out working hard to try to get back into the game. One notable performer was Etienne Capoue – on at half-time for Mousa Dembélé, who had uncharacteristically given the ball away on several occasions – who put himself about, scored Spurs’ only goal and was not shy in making a challenge, at some point aggravating City’s Spanish playmaker so much, it was the most upset I had seen David Silva since he watched Scott Scanlon bleed all over his Mom’s Persian rug. With a final score of 5-1, Pelligrini’s men managed to rack up 11 goals against Tottenham this season, the most the Lilywhites had conceded in two league games against a single opponent since Arsenal matched that total in the 1930s. The good news, with Spurs already out of the FA Cup and League Cup, plus the clubs competing in different European competitions, it will be at least another 7 months before they can meet again.
The three points for City moved them to the top of the table, as both of their closest rivals were held to draws in midweek. Arsenal started very slowly in their match at St. Mary’s against Southampton and were very lucky to have only been 1-0 down at the interval. During the break, Arsene Wenger must have invoked Sir Alex Ferguson and brought out le sèche-cheveux, as the Gunners came out firing in the second half and quickly turned the 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 advantage thanks to strikes by Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. Nevertheless, their lead lasted less than two minutes as Adam Lallana provided the finish to a Southampton counter-attack to draw the Saints level and that was how the game ended, meaning Arsenal dropped points for the first time since their 0-0 draw with Chelsea on December 23rd.
In that match, Jose Mourinho’s side had set up very defensively and aimed to play as a spoiler to the Gunners, tactics that were condoned by the Blues manager on Wednesday night when they were adopted by West Ham, who earned a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge. After the match, Mourinho had compared their opponents tactics to 19th century football, a time when teams actually often lined up with only one defender and the emphasis was on attack, when in fact he could have likened West Ham’s performance to Steaua Bucharest’s European Cup win in 1986 against Barcelona; or Internazionale’s progression against the Catalan’s in the 2010 Champions League – if only I could remember who the Milan club’s manager was back then…. Pleased with the point, Sam Allardyce afterwards claimed that his opposite number was annoyed because he had been “out-tacticed”, but the West Ham boss was giving himself a bit too much credit: Chelsea had 38 shots in the match and the fact that they did not score was little to do with the tactics that Big Sam had adopted, more it was poor finishing, good goalkeeping and a whole lot of luck.
Although Liverpool are not likely to challenge for their first league title since 1990, they did take a big step towards returning to the Champions League for the first time in three seasons when they won the Merseyside derby 4-0 on Tuesday night. The contest was over before half-time, as a header from Steven Gerrard and two smart finishes by Daniel Sturridge had put Everton in a hole they looked unable to climb out of, especially since they had lost Romelu Lukaku to an injury sustained in a collision with Gareth Barry at the corner that led to the first goal. Luis Suarez scored his 23 Premiership goal of the season after the break, but Sturridge missed out on the chance for his hat-trick when he blazed a penalty over the bar after Rahim Sterling had been fouled in the area by Tim Howard. Liverpool’s main opposition for the fourth spot could yet come from their old rivals Manchester United, who had Juan Mata in the team for the first time in their game against Cardiff and, even if the Spaniard had little impact on the pitch, the optimism that surrounded his arrival clearly lifted the fans and the Red Devils responded with a 2-0 victory.
The most entertaining fixture in midweek was the Midlands derby between Aston Villa and West Brom, which ended up 4-3 to Paul Lambert’s side. Just as they had done at the Hawthorns earlier in the season against Villa, West Brom raced into a 2-0 lead in the opening 10 minutes, but once again the Baggies could not hold on. In their first encounter, it had taken Aston Villa until the second half to get back onto level terms, but on Wednesday, they had erased the deficit by the 24th minute, then took the lead 8 minutes before half-time through a fabulous strike from Fabian Delph. However, that lead did not hold until the break as Youssouf Mulumbu equalized for the visitors, but a second-half penalty won and converted by Christian Benteke gave the Villains just their third home win of the season and the victory propelled them up to tenth in the table, eight points above the relegation zone.
On Tuesday, Sunderland moved out of the bottom three for the first time all season with a 1-0 home win over Stoke – who are now just a point and a place above the Black Cats in the table – with the winner coming from Adam Johnson, who has scored or assisted on his team’s last seven goals. Elsewhere, Norwich and Newcastle – who were without Yohan Cabaye, as the French midfielder was finalizing his move to Paris Saint Germain – both had a man sent off after Loic Remy and Bradley Johnson clashed and then saw red, but neither team could find the net and the game ended 0-0; Swansea’s poor run of form saw at least a brief upturn with a 2-0 home victory against a hapless Fulham team, though the Cottagers have just secured Lewis Holtby on loan for the rest of the season from Spurs; and Hull lost their fourth game in a row, during which time they’ve failed to find the net, as Crystal Palace continued their resurgence and moved up to 14th in the league thanks to a Jason Puncheon goal at Selhurst Park.
The standout fixture of this weekend is the Monday night clash between Manchester City and Chelsea, which could see Mourinho adopt the exact tactics he complained about West Ham playing as the Blues attempt to be the first team to come away from the Etihad with any points this season. With City now three points above them in the table, it might encourage Chelsea to come out and go for the win, though a loss may end any hopes they have of regaining the title as Pelligrini’s men look relentless and unlikely to slip up too many more times for the rest of the campaign. On Saturday morning, there are two early games: the Tyne-Wear derby between Newcastle and Sunderland, plus West Ham hosting Swansea, with both teams searching for points to move away from the relegation zone. Elsewhere, Stoke entertain Manchester United; Arsenal have a London derby against Crystal Palace; Spurs travel to Hull; an injury-ravaged Everton take on Aston Villa; Cardiff will look for their first league win under Ole Gunnar Solskjær in their match with Norwich; Fulham take on Southampton at Craven Cottage; and Liverpool will be aiming to consolidate fourth place when they go to West Brom.
Midweek, 5-5; Season 120-110
Home team listed first
Newcastle vs Sunderland – Draw
West Ham vs Swansea – Home win
Cardiff vs Norwich – Home win
Everton vs Aston Villa – Draw
Fulham vs Southampton – Away win
Hull vs Tottenham – Home win
Stoke vs Manchester United – Away win
West Brom vs Liverpool – Away win
Arsenal vs Crystal Palace – Home win
Manchester City vs Chelsea – Home win